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Terrorism With the Religion Taken Out

When bombs went off in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood on Saturday night, state and city officials said some very silly things. But understanding those remarks is actually key to understanding U.S. policy toward terrorism in general.

The immediate response of Mayor Bill de Blasio was to reject possible links to terrorism as such. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, declared that “a bomb exploding in New York is obviously an act of terrorism, but it’s not linked to international terrorism—in other words we find no ISIS connection, etc.” Both men also rejected possible linkages to another bombing earlier in the day at Seaside Park, NJ, which had targeted a Marine charity run.

At the time both comments were uttered, nobody had any idea who had undertaken the attacks or what their motives were. Feasibly, the attacks could have been launched by militants working in the cause of international Islamism, or black power, or white supremacy, or none of the above: they might have been the work of a lone mad bomber furious at his maltreatment by the power company. De Blasio was thus right to leave open the question of attribution, but he was wrong to squelch the potential terrorist link. His comment was doubly foolish given that the New Jersey attack had happened the same day and involved similar methods, which in itself indicated that an organized campaign had begun. As Cuomo had no hint who the attackers were, he actually could say nothing whatsoever about whether they had any connections to the Islamic State.

The New York Times, meanwhile, headlined that the explosion was “intentional,” which was helpful, as it meant that a New York City garbage can had not detonated spontaneously.


Why on earth would de Blasio and Cuomo make such fatuous comments, especially when their security advisors must have been telling them something radically different? (NYPD intelligence and counter-terrorist operations are superb.) Why, particularly, would they make remarks that are virtually certain to be disproved within days?

Both de Blasio and Cuomo made an instant decision to go the heart of the matter as they saw it, which was not analyzing or discussing terrorism, but rather preventing hate crimes and pre-empting “Islamophobia.” In doing this, they were closely echoing the approach of Barack Obama, who has explicitly stated that the danger of terrorism is wildly overblown, as fewer Americans die from terrorism than die from slipping in their bathtubs. (Thank heaven Obama was not president in December 1941, or he would presumably have been lecturing the American people about how small the casualty figures were on the USS Arizona, when set aside road deaths.) In contrast, the real and pressing danger facing the nation is ethnic and religious hatred and bigotry, which is bad in itself, and which also threatens U.S. prestige and diplomatic clout in the wider world.

Combating that threat must take absolute supremacy. That means (among other things) systematically underplaying and under-reporting any and all violent incidents committed by Muslims, or even overtly claimed for Islamist causes. Where Islamist claims are explicitly made, then the waters must be muddied by suggesting other motives—presenting the assailant as a lone berserker, motivated perhaps by psychiatric illness or homophobia. We rarely hear this ubiquitous strategy identified or named, so I offer a name here: this is the U.S. policy of de-Islamization.

With a mixture of bemusement and despair, we watch the extremely limited coverage of the savage attack in St Cloud, Minn., where a Somali man approached strangers in a mall, asked them if they were Muslim, and attacked any and all non-Muslims with a knife while shouting “Allah akbar.” The Islamic State rapidly acknowledged the assailant as one of its soldiers. The FBI has labeled the attack “a potential act of terrorism.” (You think?) Rather than focusing on the attacker or his motivations, CNN’s coverage of the incident emphasizes that “Community leaders fear anti-Muslim backlash, call for unity.” If you have the languages, you are much better off accessing French or German news sources for coverage of such American events.

What about Cuomo’s “international terrorism” point? This represents a throwback to what should be an extinct classification system for terrorist attacks.

In years gone by, some terror attacks were launched by U.S. citizens working in various causes, while others were the work of international forces. The latter might include an Iraqi militant assassinating dissidents in Michigan. But the label also had ethnic and religious overtones. In the 1980s and 1990s, domestic terrorism usually implied white supremacists or neo-Nazis, while “international” commonly denoted Islamic or Middle Eastern connections.

That distinction made sense when the U.S. had a small Muslim population, very few of whom were tied to international causes or organizations. That situation is now totally different, and most of the numerous Islamist terror attacks on U.S. soil of the past decade have been undertaken by U.S. residents or citizens. Orlando killer Omar Mateen was born in New York State, and Fort Hood terrorist Nidal Hassan was a Virginian serving in the U.S. Army. The man currently identified as a suspect in the Chelsea attacks is Ahmad Khan Rahami, a naturalized U.S. citizen.

All these events are thus domestic terror attacks, but they were committed in the name of global Islamist causes, specifically of the Islamic State. So why does the domestic/international dichotomy matter any more?

When Cuomo said the Chelsea attacks were not international in character, what he meant to imply was that they were neither Islamic nor Islamist in inspiration. His statement was simply deceptive, and was part of the larger campaign to de-Islamize the present terror campaign.

Whoever the next president may be, I am not too concerned about how “tough” they aspire to be toward terrorism in general. I just want them to acknowledge the deadly seriousness of the situation this country faces from domestic guerrilla campaigns, and most importantly, the religious and political causes in which most of that violence is undertaken.

Let’s end de-Islamization.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels [1]. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Terrorism With the Religion Taken Out"

#1 Comment By max skinner On September 19, 2016 @ 12:37 pm

Why do law enforcement and elected officials have to announce what motivates a terrorist to be a terrorist after the act is committed? In terms of detecting co conspirators and potentially thwarting a terrorist act, law enforcement needs to look at motivation, but beyond that rational, pragmatic purpose, what is this the point?

#2 Comment By Publius On September 19, 2016 @ 12:41 pm

Mr. Jenkins, you know as well as I that your call will go unheeded because professional careers hang in the balance. People get paid, and consciences befogged and assuaged, for denying or deprecating the links between Islam and violent jihad. I know plenty of these people and can name them personally. They believe in the talking cure. It does not register with them that they thereby prolong the agony and consequently destroy more lives. The only thing that will cure the cancer of jihad is the destruction of Islamic supremacism. Either Islam joins the community of religions as an equal, or it will push itself into an apocalypse not of its choosing. Islam must lose, one way or another.

#3 Comment By Robert Levine On September 19, 2016 @ 1:43 pm

“In doing this, they were closely echoing the approach of Barack Obama, who has explicitly stated that the danger of terrorism is wildly overblown, as fewer Americans die from terrorism than die from slipping in their bathtubs.”

By any rational measure, the danger of terrorism in the US is wildly overblown. A resident of the US is less likely to be killed or injured in a terroristic attack than, say, much of Western Europe, to say nothing of any country in the Middle East.

I don’t see how a religion can be blamed for terrorism if 99.9% of the adherents of that religion (certainly in the US) don’t engage in or support such acts. It would be like blaming the Catholic church for the murder of doctors who provide abortions, when only a bare handful of crazies commit such crimes.

#4 Comment By Somewhere Over On September 19, 2016 @ 1:46 pm

Well, they’re still sorting it out, but it looks increasingly like another terror attack by another immigrant from the Middle East.

Why we haven’t completely shut off immigration from the Middle East beats me entirely. As does the fact that we’re still over there.

We got in bed with Israel and as a result got attacked by Islamist fanatics on 9/11. Nothing particularly surprising about it, if you had been paying attention.

The question is, why did we ignore the advice of wise men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams to “avoid entangling alliances” and all that?

Does this crop of idiot politicians in DC really think they’re smarter than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams? You’d think that modern politicians who speak so reverently of the other things -freedom, liberty and so forth – that these great men bequeathed us would have a little respect for their advice on foreign policy. Instead they sh*t on it, and tell us to pretend that getting involved in ancient Middle Eastern hatreds has nothing to do with why we were attacked on 9/11, and that we have no right to keep Middle Easterners out of our country, and that instead we better give up our freedom and liberty in order to make it easier for the idiot politicians to address the terror problem they caused.

#5 Comment By George Crosley On September 19, 2016 @ 1:46 pm

De Blasio and Cuomo have simply adopted as their governing philosophy the words of a might sage whose name I have forgotten: “Nobody knows who they were, or . . . or what they were doin’.”

The motivation of this past weekend’s bombers and knife-wielders remains one of life’s great mysteries. It may never be solved.

Now, if only the attackers had waved Confederate flags during their onslaughts, then we’d know what they were about, by golly!

#6 Comment By Clint On September 19, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

These attacks just increase the fact that Trump will be elected to make America safe again.

#7 Comment By Phil Giraldi On September 19, 2016 @ 2:45 pm

I am not sure what this article is supposed to mean, particularly when taken together with the author’s previous piece advocating police surveillance of mosques. Are all Muslims presumed to be potential terrorists because they are Muslims, conflating a religion with criminal activity? What possible good does it do for the media and public officials to immediately start labeling every terrorist act as possibly “Islamic,” as the author appears to recommend?

Everyone who has not been asleep for the past fifteen years knows what the global terrorism problem consists of right now, in large part due to wars and destabilization triggered by Washington, but those with a longer memory might even recall that terror was a white European product not so long ago. I don’t believe that we labeled the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof “Christians” or even “Europeans” to explain their fixation with death.

The real security problem both for Americans and Europeans is the immigration vetting process, which appears to be largely non-existent. Why were the bomber in NY/NJ and the knifeman in Minnesota here in the first place? The White House has announced that the U.S. will be taking in 125,000 more refugees next year, a number that will certainly include the disgruntled and even hostile who will bring their anger with them. It’s time to close the door until we figure out how to better assess potential fellow citizens, but implying that honest Muslim residents of this country are prone to terrorism is definitely not the way to go.

#8 Comment By JMJR On September 19, 2016 @ 2:49 pm

Connect-the-dots: A parable.

When I was younger I was given a “connect-the-dots” workbook. Imagine my surprise when I opened the book and the first page was full of a bunch of dots with numbers by them. I was told to take my crayon and follow the dots in order of the accompanying numbers and it would form a picture. When I finished the page, much to my surprise it formed a familiar picture. The next page too was filled with what seemed like random dots with number by them. Again, I was told to take my crayon and connect the dots in numerical order and it would form a picture. I know you won’t believe it, but it worked. Page after page of dots that when connected formed pictures. Sometimes I would begin at the dot with the number twenty instead of at the dot with the number one and still get a picture. Some of the pages had dots without numbers and still I got a picture. I finished the whole book and the dots on every page formed a picture.

Imagine an “adult” came to me and took my crayon away chastising me for trying to connect the dots, “Those are just random dots on a page!” I replied, ‘No, the dots are not random and I have found that every page (so far) has a hidden picture in it if only I take the time make the connections. It is after all a book with the title, “Connect-the-dots.”’

“Rubbish,” the imaginary adult cries, “just because every page in the workbook has provided you with a picture when you connected the dots according to the numbers does not mean that this last page will! There is no picture!”

So ends the parable.

#9 Comment By Hankest On September 19, 2016 @ 4:47 pm

Making these losers a cog of an international conspiracy that poses a significant threat to Americans is a bit over the top.

Mr Jenkins, take a deep breath and perhaps read this:


An excerpt:

“Terrorism is a nearly nonexistent danger for Americans. You have a greater chance of being hit by lightning, but fear doesn’t work that way. There’s no 24/7 coverage of global lightning strikes or ‘if you see something, say something’ signs that encourage you to report thunderstorms. So I felt no need to apologize for lightning.

But terrorism? I really wanted to tell my daughter just how sorry I was that she would have to live in what 9/11 transformed into the most frightened country on Earth.”

#10 Comment By c matt On September 19, 2016 @ 5:32 pm

Either Islam joins the community of religions as an equal, or it will push itself into an apocalypse not of its choosing.

It doesn’t have to join as an “equal,” it just has to make its argument for superiority without resorting to violence.

#11 Comment By Publius On September 19, 2016 @ 6:47 pm

“By any rational measure, the danger of terrorism in the US is wildly overblown.”

Yes, then there’s no problem in compounding the problem. I suggest we relocate all possible ISIS males to your neighborhood, Henkist.

While we’re at it, we’ll toss in a few ebola patients and a zika mosquito. I mean, what are the odds?

Get your head out of the books.

#12 Comment By A Little Weird On September 19, 2016 @ 6:56 pm

Curious to see the numbers on how many Americans die from Islamophobia compared to how many die from terrorism.

#13 Comment By Jack Tracey On September 19, 2016 @ 9:55 pm

Mr. Giraldi, you’ve consistently shed much needed light on the GWOT, but whatever the shortcomings of the article, I’m struggling with the what seems like a contradiction. If the vetting system is broken and has been broken, and if immigration needs to be shut off until it is fixed, is it not reasonable to expect that there are many not-so-honest Muslim immigrants in this country who are prone to terrorism? How do they live hidden among our Muslim neighbors who we all want to believe are grateful patriots with no sympathies for those who act out the violent expression of spiritual struggle that is condoned in the sacred texts studied by all Muslims?

#14 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On September 20, 2016 @ 12:40 am

“Why on earth would de Blasio and Cuomo make such fatuous comments, especially when their security advisors must have been telling them something radically different?” quick answer; operational security. perhaps law enforcement and other terrorist hunters asked them to offer “fatuous comments”. that is to say, perhaps, in the early hours of the (active) investigation of a terrorist incident “security advisors” DO NOT WANT politicos offering up to the minute briefings on the status of the investigations (leads, suspects, motive).

#15 Comment By Daath On September 20, 2016 @ 7:57 am

We’re hardwired to react more strongly to attacks by other humans, than to natural disasters or accidents, and for good reason.

Violent extremists are practically always a small, usually tiny minority. It’s just that they come with fellow travelers. First, there are supporters, who may contribute money or favors if they see an opportunity, but usually just use words. These may be arguments in favor of the radicals, or they may be anonymous death threats against their opponents. In any case, they create the kind of social pressure that the violent extremists can’t, as they’re too few in number and in any case often want to avoid visibility.

Then, there are the ambivalent types, who often are quite numerous. In case of Muslims, they’re the sort of people who don’t accept violence, but on the other hand think that West is just as murderous. Who don’t approve of the radicals, but don’t like the idea of ratting their fellow believers to infidel police, either. And so on.

Even such terrorists as McVeigh or Breivik – single men who did single attacks – didn’t just appear out of nowhere. In case of Islamists, we have group after group of attackers, series of attacks in so many countries. Not all Islamic communities are like Belgium’s Molenbeek, places where these two groups of fellow travelers are numerous enough to intimidate dissenters into silence or flight, and allow the hard core of extremists to operate with relative impunity, but plenty of them are pretty close. In short, even a small number of terrorist attacks is a pretty good heuristic marker for a group of people with plenty of hostility against you, not offset by any real loyalty or affection. Do people really want to make the bet that this won’t be the case with Syrians set to arrive in USA?

There is no comparable dynamic when it comes to children drowning in swimming pools, or whatever accident one uses to dodge the question.

#16 Comment By Roy On September 20, 2016 @ 8:24 am

Religious people claim that religion motivates people to do good works, but when they do terrorist acts they claim that they act in spite of religion. Such claims make no sense.


#17 Comment By Hankest On September 20, 2016 @ 9:32 am

Publius, first that quote wasn’t from me, although i agree with it. Second, for the record (is there a record?) i live in Brooklyn near a heavily Islamic neighborhood, i work a few blocks from the WTC, I witnessed those attacks close up and worked at the site during the cleanup. Oh, before we go there, i’m not Islamic, i’m of Irish/Scottish Catholic and Ashkenazi Jewish heritage.

I’m not sure what you mean by “all possible ISIS males,” which is probably for the best as i’d wager it’s something overwrought and ugly.

I think it’s clear; what these generally incompetent idiots want is to believe they are part of some international existential threat to the US, they want to terrify us and force us to overreact. Let’s take a breath, shake our heads, not do that.

Anyway, I like your name “Publius” was that after Jay/Hamilton/Madison or after Scipio? Either way, all of them learned, rational book lovers.

#18 Comment By cecelia On September 20, 2016 @ 12:45 pm

I agree the public officials who deny a connection between terrorism and Islam are not doing anyone any good.

However, that said, look at these men who have committed terrorist acts. None of them were devout muslims. The guys in France were porn consuming marijuana smoking young men. The guy in Nice also did drugs, was not devout, and had an internet history of porn viewing too. The attack in Florida was from a bisexual male using steroids who frequented gay bars. Your typical terrorist is not a devout Muslim. It seems more like a person who has grievances, uses drugs, and also uses ISIS propaganda as justification for their murderous impulses which originate in their life failures.

As has been said – blaming Islam for the actions of the few when the majority are peaceful is absurd. But ignoring it all together is also not a good strategy. Blaming ISIS propaganda might be the more accurate tack to take.

#19 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On September 20, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

@A Little Weird. Are you being sarcastic, or rhetorical? If you recall, in the aftermath of 9/11, a Sikh, convenience store employee in AZ was murdered because he was though to be a Muslim. on another level, think about the epidemic of unarmed African-Americans being murdered by armed law enforcement officers. as noted, consider the actions of Tim McVeigh, Eric Rudolph. Fear is both an asset and liability in terms of the human experience. I am not taking sides, just confirming there are many sides. every police shooting and terrorist attack is different. there is no one size fits all explanation. I don’t disagree there needs to be change in terms immigration, law enforcement tactics/procedures, but any incident needs to be investigated and “processed” as a law enforcement issue, and only then can we look to the bigger problems.

#20 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 20, 2016 @ 2:52 pm

And now the NY/NJ incidents are speculated to be a Russian plot to get Trump elected… rather than what they really are.

#21 Comment By z On September 21, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

Well said. For those who say that only a small number of U.S. citizens die in terrorist attacks, I’d just like to know how many is enough for you to start caring? If one of your family members or close friends was involved, would you care then? Any preventable death is a tragedy! Because only a small percentage of the population is affected, we should do nothing about it? Ludicrous! If a certain make of automobile was having catastrophic brake failure and several people had died, would we say “Well it’s just a few people, relax, no big deal.” No there would be massive media coverage, massive recalls, and perhaps regulatory fines and other punishments. (Wait, that’s exactly what has happened numerous times, including Toyota in the recent past.) And that’s with inanimate objects built by people presumably with no intention to harm others. Yet attack after attack happens from the same demographic and no one wants to confront the attackers’ motivations. People don’t act in a vacuum. They are motivated by ideas. If a given group holds the idea that they are entitled to rule the world and to violently oppress or kill any dissenters (infidels), I’d say that presents a problem for the rest of us who want to live in peace with our neighbors. Bullies are only emboldened by submission. By ignoring them they will only continue to attack. A proud and confident ideological defense of Western, Enlightenment values (emphasizing individual rights and liberties) backed up by strong military and police action to counter any acts of aggression against innocents is the only path to victory over the Islamist threat.

#22 Comment By hankest On September 22, 2016 @ 8:28 am

Z, i care, and I know people who were killed in a terrorist attack (no one close though). And of course police, the FBI etc should be doing their jobs catching these morons. The point is, turning the nation into a surveillance state, spending trillions invading nations in the Mideast and making our fellow citizens into pariahs because they happen to go to mosques is an overreaction to a small risk.

But you knew that…